THE BEST POSSIBLE TASTE
In defence of fine dining.
Food critic Matthew Fort makes the case for celebrating the oft-derided fine dining experience
feet whisper over the thick pile carpet. Beneath a mirror in a rococo ormolu frame, the table sits in a pool of light, draped with a heavy damask table cloth, as white as snow and with the same crispness. Silver cutlery shimmers on its surface. The light gleams on the glasses as elegant as tulips, as delicate as butterflies’ wings. Settle down into the red plush of the banquette, luxury lapping round. The waiter, in black suiting and a white shirt, sweeps the napkin from the table and unfurls it.
“A glass of Champagne, sir?” he asks as he hands over the menu. His tone suggests supreme authority over this space, this guest and their needs. The place, the table, he, conspire to make them feel relaxed, comfortable, even sophisticated. For the next few hours, all anxieties, troubles and irritations of the outside world will be held at bay.
“Something a little stronger, perhaps.” “You need a Deauville.”
“A quarter Cointreau, a quarter Calvados, a quarter armagnac, a quarter fresh lime juice, over ice, sir. Very restorative.”
“The very thing.”
The heft of the menu speaks of quality. No grease-spotted, flimsy bit of A4 paper here. The cover is board, the dishes within printed in elaborate script on paper with the texture of linen. Their names — potage de tortue Curzon; mousse de homard Neptune; quenelles de brochet, sauce Nantua; cervelle au beurre noire; poulet poché Edouard VII; caneton en cocotte Montmorency; lièvre à la Royale; tournedos cendrillon; rognons de veau eminencé grand veneur; filet de boeuf Lucullus; baba au rhum; crêpes Suzette — roll like titles from some gastronomic Almanach de Gotha. The very words have flavour, carry images, memories, pleasure. A bubble of excitement and anticipation rises up. Oh yes, oh yes.
the dishes listed above come from various restaurants that plied their trade in London in the Seventies, the last great flourish of old style, French-dominated, swish, haute-cuisine, fine dining that began in the early 19th century.
This country owes a great debt to the French Revolution. As their aristocratic masters lost their heads in 1793–’94, the chefs they employed lost their jobs. In a pattern that has become familiar in subsequent centuries, some fled to seek employment here. Chefs such as Marie-Antoine Caréme, Charles Elmé Francatelli and Alexis Soyer crossed the Channel in search of work and patronage, bringing with them culinary skills, sophistication and ambition largely unknown in Britain. Up to this point, public eating in Britain had been something of a rough and ready affair in chop houses, pubs, inns, hostelries and the like. At best the food might be called honest, decent fare, at worst it was foul. Of course there were exceptions, the odd aristocratic household, but they were few and far between.
Perhaps as importantly, these incomers brought with them marketing panache and the organisational skills needed to produce dishes of gastronomic splendour. They took over the clubs, institutions and rich houses. They cooked for royalty, the aristocracy and the burgeoning middle class. French food became the standard of aspiration and the mark of achievement, and so it continued throughout the 19th and for most of the 20th centuries.
The Francofile influence reached its apogee in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when Auguste Escoffier, the great grandfather of modern cooking, teamed up with César Ritz and changed the way kitchens and hotels — the Savoy and The Ritz in London among them — worked and marketed themselves. French chefs cooking French food in a serious, not to say oppressive, French manner became the hallmark of what constituted fine dining.
It set the standards by which all cooking in Britain was judged. Haute cuisine was, effectively, de haut en bas — French food first, British food a very long way second. “The Café Royal is pleasantly conservative and is more like a good French restaurant of the Second Empire than is any other dining place I know in London,” wrote Nathaniel Newnham-Davis in approval in 1899. Bertie Wooster summed up the prevailing view when he described Anatole, Aunt Dahlia’s French chef, as “God’s gift to the gastric juices”.
Even when, a century and a half on, French haute cuisine was visited by its own revolution in the form of Nouvelle Cuisine in the Sixties, it was promptly exported to London in the form of French consultant chefs such as Louis Outhier, Michel Lorain and Joël Antunès. In those days, when it came to high-end eating, we still remained slavishly attached to all things French. Even the most vaunted chefs of the early Nineties were either French (the Roux brothers, Raymond Blanc, Pierre Koffman, Michel Bourdin) or, if British (eg, Nico Ladenis, Marco Pierre White, John Burton-Race), cooked in an unashamedly French manner in the grand style.
However, behind the magnificent edifice of formalised, Frenchified fine dining, something was stirring. Early shoots of resistance appeared in the Fifties in the form of George Perry-Smith at the Hole in the Wall in Bath and Francis Coulson at the Sharrow Bay Hotel. Then, more numerously in the Sixties, chefs such as Tim Cummings at Cranes in Salisbury, Joyce Molyneux at the Carved Angel, Dartmouth, Kenneth Bell at The Elizabeth, Oxford, distinctly home-grown talents, began to turn their backs on the more oppressive aspects of French fine-dining practices. They were still fundamentally in thrall to the cooking traditions of Continental Europe but embraced local ingredients and even introduced the odd dish of unmistakable British provenance, serving their food in a more relaxed atmosphere.
French dominance seriously began to crack in the Sixties, when a generation of Italian restaurateurs such as Franco Lagattolla and Mario Cassandro introduced the novel idea that eating out could be fun rather than solemn spectacle. Hitherto, restaurants serving serious food were dark, sombre places, dining was a stately ritual and human presence was hushed by the very gravity of the fixtures and fittings and the commanding unctuousness of the service. No longer. At La Trattoria Terrazza in Soho, the pair served decent, accessible food in light, bright rooms with tiled floors (usually designed by Enzo Apicella) that helped amplify the sound of chatter and of people having a good time. La Terrazza was followed by a number of Mario and Franco establishments, and they in turn by many others — Meridiana, Montpeliano, San Lorenzo, La Famiglia.
And then, in the Eighties, came true native revolution, and the movement against fine dining really took shape and took hold. Within a few years of each other, Shaun Hill (1983), Sally Clarke (1984), Alastair Little (1985), Simon Hopkinson at Bibendum in the former Michelin building (1987), Rowley Leigh at Kensington Place (1987), and Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray at The River Café in Hammersmith (1987) opened their restaurants and their doors on a brave new world of fine dining. They set about democratising public eating with an evangelical fervour, maintaining exceptional standards in their kitchens, but stripping away the old-school liturgy and mysteries, making fine eating accessible and informal.
The design of the restaurants in which they cooked was as important as the food. Kensington Place, Leigh’s theatre of dreams, was symbolic and emblematic of this great change. Designed by Julyan Wickham, it was specifically designed to break down the barrier between the diner and the world outside. Under the old-fashioned, French system, diners were enclosed in a cocoon of comfort. The world, and its attendant distractions, were shut out. At Kensington Place, the world and its attendant distractions were as much a part of the experience of being in the restaurant as anything else. There were floor-to-ceiling windows without curtains so that passers-by could watch the customers and vice versa. Each became a theatre for the other. Out went the red plush, swagged velvet curtains, thick pile carpet and unctuous maître d’s. In came lighting in the bright Italian mould. Tables and chairs were smartly democratic in the Scandinavian style. The menus dispensed with florid French and were written in crisp English. Service was cheerful, friendly and direct. The business of serious eating out became fun and funky for the younger many.
at first glance, these guerrillas of gastronomy seem an unlikely lot. They were all middle class. At least two were university graduates, and most had been trained in kitchens that epitomised the very traditions against which they rebelled. It’s no coincidence that the influence their restaurants wielded depended on the fact that the vast majority of them were in London. Their rise coincided with a parallel rise of the metropolo-centric food culture, and of the restaurant reviewing and food writing castes in particular. The most influential arbiters of gastronomic taste such as Quentin Crewe, Fay Maschler and Jonathan Meades were all based in London. Food, restaurants and chefs all became fashionable. Eating the right thing in the right place became a social determinant, a subject of debate, boast and chatter. As a consequence, what happened in London took precedence over what might also have been happening elsewhere.
Of course, in due time the guerrillas of gastronomy became the new establishment and they begat a new generation of gastronomic bolsheviks. However, the centre of the next wave of culinary radicalism moved from London to the provinces, with the likes of Sat Bains in Nottingham, Nathan Outlaw in Cornwall, David Everitt-Matthias in Cheltenham, Glynn Purnell in Birmingham and, above all, Heston Blumenthal in Bray. The importance of the extraordinary success of The Fat Duck lay not in the school of Blumenthal, because there hasn’t been one, but in the fact that we Brits did not need to doff our caps to the French, Italians, Spanish or anyone else. Blumenthal broke the shackles of culinary dependency and inferiority and showed that any British chef could match the world by cooking the food they wanted to. In other words, supreme quality depended on the vision of the individual chef, not on some notional national hierarchy.
Now that generation of chefs has produced a further crop of talent — Ollie Dabbous, Paul Ainsworth, Lisa Allen, Simon Rogan — and they in turn have inspired yet more, so that there isn’t a corner of the country where you can’t find proper food, much of it brilliant. Some of the most talented chefs have followed the gastropub route, the spiritual heirs, if you like, of the original guerrillas of gastronomy, but many also preferred the conventions of fine dining, albeit modernised and rejuvenated.
This has sparked off a vehement reaction among our arbiters of gastronomic fashion. In place of the baroque snobberies of the former tradition, a new, pernicious, inverted snobbery is stalking the land. It has become habitual for restaurant critics to deride “fine dining” as if it were some contemptible gastronomic heresy. A bit of theatrical oh là là, suave service, comfortable upholstery, above all, tasting menus, are held up as if they were smelly underpants, to be sniffed at by a well-bred contemporary nose.
“Fine dining: the two most dreaded words in the business,” wrote Giles Coren. Fay Maschler referred to the “soulless conventions of haute cuisine”. Tim Hayward opined: “In the future, we’ll look back on the time when Phil Howard ‘quit’ fine dining as a climacteric in British cuisine.”
“Once upon a time, I used to scour Michelin, especially when travelling, enduring many a hushed, clenched room and dishes where red peppers were tortured to look like Mondrians. This has caused a bit of an allergy to the stressy, tweezered school of cuisine, so I’m afraid you won’t find many multi-course tasting menus
It has become habitual for restaurant critics to deride ‘fine dining’. A bit of theatrical oh là là, suave service, comfortable upholstery, above all, tasting menus, are held up as if they were smelly underpants, to be sniffed at by a well-bred contemporary nose
here,” claimed Marina O’Loughlin in a survey of her favourite restaurants.
“Have those dreaded faine daining restaurants disappeared? Absolutely not. In certain central London postcodes there are more pointless stupidities than you could shake a gilded Chanel stick at,” fulminated Jay Rayner.
It seems ironic that the people in the best position to celebrate food, its pleasures, its variety of forms and its sense of indulgence, should be preaching a new puritanism. Instead of being generously ecumenical in their tastes, critics turn out to be the Ranters, Levellers or Diggers of contemporary gastronomy.
No one in their right mind would want to turn back the clock, but, by condemning highend restaurants and the style they represent out of hand, you reduce the possibilities for pleasure. It’s as if the acme of modern eating out should be reduced to a narrow paradigm rather than treating the theatre of public eating as a spectrum on which different kinds of restaurants serve different people looking for different experiences on different occasions.
As too often in this country, food is used as a form of social exclusion, and, instead of promoting the idea that anyone should feel an inalienable right to go to and enjoy restaurants of style and ambition (and expense). The message, once again de haut en bas, is that we, the ordinary diner, really shouldn’t bother with fine dining because we don’t really understand what we’re doing if we do enjoy it. We’re not part of the club/sect/gang who do.
Silvano Giraldin, the legendary maître d’hotel of Le Gavroche, acknowledges that many restaurants have only themselves to fault. “Too many restaurants are to blame because they kill the fun. The waiters in some places don’t know when to shut up. They come along to explain the menu. Then they take the order. Then they insist on telling you what you’re about to eat when they bring the dishes. And then they tell you to enjoy yourself,” he says. “Perhaps the experience has become too chef-oriented. Chefs think customers are there just to eat their food. No. Customers are there to enjoy themselves. There’s too much formality and repetition. Leave the customers alone. If they want to know more, they can ask.”
Tasting menus, in particular, have become a target of the obloquy of contemporary eating. This censure is usually accompanied by disparaging references to tweezers, pipettes, foams, gels, and dishes being the product of many hands. It seems odd to object to food looking carefully prepared, still odder that we should worry whether a dish is put together by a solitary genius in the kitchen, or by a platoon of skilled, willing helpers. One might just as well complain about a surgeon leading a team of surgical assistants, technologists, nurses and anesthesiologists, and suggest they should go about their work with cleavers and tongs.
Not only do brilliantly crafted plates of food exhibit extraordinary levels of skill and visual imagination, they also make the eater feel treasured. Someone — several someones — have worked long and hard to produce such plates of food in perfect condition, for you, here and now. Any dish of any ambition is an extraordinary achievement, and should be seen as such, not as trial by calorie that some people whose job it is to eat lots of them, moan.
What on earth is wrong with tasting menus anyway? OK, the digestive systems and aesthetic sensibilities of the jaded few may feel the strain, but most of us go out to restaurants for pleasure. Tasting menus have many advantages. They do away with the agony of having to make a choice. Under certain circumstances, choice is the enemy, bringing about emotional instability or
Fine dining will change, evolve as we become more demanding in our tastes. The worst excesses will be reined in, new excesses will be introduced. But it will remain another point on the panoply of pleasures
causing us to revert to our comfort foods because we can’t make up our minds.
Tasting menus also neatly circumvent the possibilities of menu envy. How many times have you thought, “I wish I was having that” as you peer at the food on someone else’s plate? Or resented when someone else at your table says, “Do you mind if I try your...?” Yes, I bloody well do. Nor do you get those embittered thoughts when it comes to paying the bill, you know the kind of thing: “I know we agreed to go halves, but that was before you decided to have the lobster and I had the quinoa salad.”
There are none of those kinds of discordant notes with tasting menus. They bring equality before the menu and provide absolute certainty that you know what you’re going to be eating, how much you’re going to be eating and how much it’s going to cost you. It’s not as if chefs come up with tasting menus because they want to show off their dazzling skill or creative wizardry to their customers. No, they do them because that’s what many people ask for. It’s an economic decision, not a culinary one.
I once took Heston Blumenthal to task for doing away with the à la carte menu at The Fat Duck. He said when they’d analysed what people asked for, 90 per cent went for the tasting menu. It didn’t make financial sense, he said, to keep an à la carte menu, with its quality control, kitchen management and wastage, for the remaining 10 per cent. Small wonder that not-insignificant restaurants such as elBulli, Noma, Mugaritz opted to serve only tasting menus.
And if you don’t want to work your way through a tasting menu, you don’t have to. In truth, most restaurants offer alternatives, and there are plenty of restaurants that don’t offer them at all. The choice is up to you. But to object to them on a matter of principle seems condescending, petty-minded and restrictive.
Like all human activity, fine dining can be well done or badly done. When badly done, it’s a tedious bore of prodigious expense. When well done, it is an impeccably crafted journey that cossets the senses, lifts the spirits and sends us out soothed and strengthened to face the sturm und drang of life. As Giraldin says, “Of course, fine dining has a fantastic place in the range of ways to eat. When it’s done well, there’s nothing like it.”
It’s reassuring that in spite of rejection by exhausted critics, the concept of fine dining shows little inclination to go away. “I love fine dining,” declares St John’s Fergus Henderson. “Of course it’s not dead,” says chef Jason Atherton. “There are always enough people out there who want the finer things in life.” Maybe, he suggests, fine dining will change. “There’s a move towards smaller restaurants specialising in this kind of experience, 20 or 24 covers.”
There is only one question you really need to ask yourself at the end of any meal: “Do I mind paying the bill?” If you’ve been separated from your dosh without a quiver of pain, it’s been worth it. If, on the other hand, you feel a deep sense of resentment, you haven’t. In my experience, I am just as likely to feel the latter in some uber-fashionable, carefully distressed, down-and-dirty modern eatery as I am in some damask and glittering glassware, 21-course tasting-menu temple of gastronomy.
The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik wrote, “The restaurant, whether at its most abstract, ritzy form or at its most elemental, can always be diverted back toward a primal magic, a mood of mischief, stolen pleasures, a retreat from the world, a boat in a storm.” Fine dining will change, evolve as we become more demanding in our tastes. The worst excesses will be reined in, new excesses will be introduced. But it will remain another point on the panoply of pleasures.
It will survive the agonised moans of the critics, because, dare I say, many of us paying customers actually enjoy “a retreat from the world” that the occasional bout of dressing up and being pampered in expensive luxury: snowy napery, heavy gravity cutlery, the light winking on the serried ranks of wine glasses, the deft way our needs are met, nay, anticipated, the understated psychotherapy of the high-grade waiter, the ordered swish and glide of the service, and, yes, plates of exquisitely ordered food, the sense that we don’t have to worry about anything (except possibly the bill). The whole experience is — or should be — akin to sinking into the back seat of a turbo-charged Bentley Continental and murmuring to the chauffeur, “Home James, home James, and don’t spare the horses.”
Left: now considered one of the greatest pioneers of modern cooking techniques, Auguste Escoffier, right, attends a Westminster culinary exhibition, London, 1899
Staff discuss the day’s menu at The Ritz Restaurant, Piccadilly, London, 1963
From left: Mario Cassandro and Franco Lagattolla at their London La Trattoria Terrazza restaurant in the Fifties; celebrities including Emma Freud, Richard Curtis, Naomi Watts, Scarlett Johansson and Benicio del Toro dine at a pre-Baftas party, San...